Bar Service: An Interview with Rosie Schaap




Scott Korb interviews Rosie Schaap

Bar Service: An Interview with Rosie Schaap

February 9th, 2013 reset - +

WRITER AND BARTENDER Rosie Schaap has been a friend of mine for more than a decade. In the fall of 2007, when my first book, The Faith Between Us, came out, she hosted a book-launch reading at Good World Bar and Grill, an establishment she writes about in the final chapter of her new memoir, Drinking with Men. It was also around this time that I had one of my most memorable New York bar experiences: an afternoon drinking with Rosie and a handful of other regulars behind the scenes at Good World’s sister bar, White Slab Palace, which was then still under construction behind plywood barricades. Once opened, White Slab — which is, alas, no longer with us — is where Rosie celebrated, with men and women alike, the debut of “Drink,” her regular monthly column for the New York Times Magazine, in October 2011. 

Rosie and I have often talked about matters of faith, belief, and religion — often while drinking. One chapter of Drinking with Men, “Bar Chaplain,” details her decision, around 2000, to answer a call to the ministry. When Rosie handed me an early copy of the book from behind the bar during her weekly shift at South Brooklyn’s SOUTH, she asked me to pay special attention to that chapter. Later, when she agreed to answer some questions for the Los Angeles Review of Books via email, I made these matters the focus of our conversation.

            – Scott Korb

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Scott Korb: If this is not too abstract a question to begin with, what do you see as the relationship between the service you were drawn to as a minister and the kind of service you do as a bartender? 

Rosie Schaap: Long ago, while working for an independent, commercial book publisher, I started to get restless, and felt called to ministry — not in a big, dramatic way, but in this quiet, persistent, internal way. I enrolled in an interfaith seminary just around the time I left the company and went to work for a grassroots antipoverty nonprofit organization. This was a long time ago — around 2000. Back then, I felt very strongly that my faith, my interest in being of service to other people, and my interest in social justice were tightly bound together. (I’ve never believed that people need to be religious to do good in the world, but for me those impulses were connected.) I guess what being a minister, or even a community organizer, share with bartending — at least, I think, when you’re doing it right — is that all of these vocations demand that we take people as they are, at their best and at their worst, and try to care for them and look after them. 

SK: Do you see connections — beyond the obvious role confession plays in both — between religious services and the service that goes on in bars?

RS: I’ve neither given nor received a good barside confession in a long time! I kind of miss that, but I’m sure it’ll happen again. But, beyond that, I think that both sites of worship and bars are, in a way, sanctified spaces. They are set apart, they are neither work nor home, and they serve a purpose, or several purposes. When we go to temple or to church, we have some idea of why we’re going, and what to expect. I’ve often spent time alone in churches when services are not in progress, just to be in a beautiful place where I can sit quietly, or pray. Like bars, houses of worship also function as sources of community. For a variety of reasons, I’ve had more success finding community in bars than I have in churches or temples.

And, as with religious services, bar culture has rituals too, though they’re less structured and programmatic. Often, I recognize a kind of sequence in which people order their drinks, talk to other customers, engage with their bartender, step outside for a smoke. For me, the ritual used to begin with the subway ride from my office to the bar, back when I worked a regular day job. On the train, I started to decompress, and to look forward to seeing my bar friends and drinking in their company. I felt the day shift into something more relaxed and unburdened than it was during my working hours.

However, sometimes a sense of duty or obligation is connected to attending church services regularly, and, though this may sound strange, this can be true with bars too. When you’re a regular — a real regular, who turns up at his or her local three or more times a week — it can sometimes feel more like an obligation than an activity with real value and meaning. This hasn’t happened to me often, only at times when I’ve felt I’ve gotten into the culture of a bar a little too deeply, when there has been tension among regulars and/or staff. At such times — and again, they’ve been rare, but they’ve happened — I’ve wondered why I kept going back, even when it ceased to be fun, and felt mechanical, rote, like I was going just because, well, that’s what I did. Duty and obligation are certainly not bad things in themselves — they can be very good things — but when they’re connected to one’s churchgoing or bargoing, I think maybe it means it’s time to find another house of worship, or another bar. 

SK: I met Frank, your late husband, only a handful of times. I once shared Manhattans with the both of you at the venerable Brooklyn Inn. He strikes me as the quietest man you drink with in the book. Your relationship develops its “comfortable domestic groove,” and you describe your local at the time, the Fish Bar, as “an extension of our home.” How does drinking with the man you’re married to differ from drinking with men you’re not married to?

RS: I tell a story in the book about stopping by Liquor Store, which was one of my favorite New York bars at the time (it no longer exists), just days before my wedding. Most of the other regulars there were men, and most of them were already married. So I asked them for their best marriage advice, and one shouted out, “Separate bars!”

I think there’s some wisdom in that. People often talk about this idea of having a “third place” that’s neither home nor work. Maybe they talk about it too much, but it’s a useful idea. If the bar is your third place, it probably works better if it’s not also your spouse’s. If things are tough at home, and you need a break, I don’t think it’s bad for a bar to be your local and not your husband’s.

But it’s true that Frank and I did share the Fish Bar, and that worked beautifully for us because all of the factors were right (the tiny size of the place, our friendship with the owners, the personalities of the other regulars). It was — and probably remains — a very unusual bar. It really did feel like a cozy, peaceable little family when we were regulars there. And Frank was essentially a shy guy, and often a quiet one, but he felt so at home and at ease at the Fish Bar that there, in that tiny place, he wasn’t particularly shy at all. It was the kind of place that made him feel very comfortable opening up to the bartenders and other regulars.

Drinking with men you’re not married to carries fewer responsibilities than drinking with your husband. I’ve never worried too much about whether a particular bar friend is having fun on a particular night at the bar (though of course I hope everybody’s having fun), but I did worry about whether Frank was. I guess our marriage and intimacy made me more sharply aware of his feelings and moods than of others’. And sometimes that could be stressful in the context of the bar, where worrying is exactly what you’re trying not to do, at least for a few hours.

SK: What’s lost when the public house and your private house are one and the same? What’s gained? 

RS: Exactly that separateness that we sometimes seek, and I’d say we sometimes need. I need it, anyway. Pretty often. 

SK: You’ve recently written in The New York Times Magazine about Frank’s death in 2010. But you’ve said very little about it in your column, and there’s nothing at all in the book. Can you say a little about why?  

RS: I wrote the proposal for Drinking with Men while Frank and I were in the midst of a trial separation (and I write about the circumstances leading to that separation in the book). We agreed not to be in touch during the separation, unless there was an emergency. About two months into it, I heard from Frank, and he told me he had cancer. We unseparated, but our marriage took on a different shape. There was never any question that I would not be with him throughout his illness. There was no way I could imagine him being treated for cancer in rural Pennsylvania. He had to come back to New York, and in New York, his home was with me. Regardless of the difficulties in our marriage, he remained my best friend and I loved him very much.

His cancer was an especially rare and vicious one, small-cell esophageal cancer. We knew so little about it that at first we thought the word “small” suggested that it wasn’t too bad. Few people live more than two years after diagnosis. But its day-to-day symptoms were mostly manageable for Frank. He continued to teach full time. To write. To travel to conferences. It was about a year and a half after his diagnosis that things got really painful, and scary, and hard to manage. Even then, at the very end, when he was in hospice, he was still teaching online. 

So I was writing Drinking with Men through all this. I was writing the book for which I had written a proposal, the book I knew I could write. I never set out to write a comprehensive autobiography; it’s a memoir of a life in bars, not a whole life.  Loved ones die in Drinking with Men, including my dad, but he had died more than seven years before I started writing the book. Had all those years not passed, I don’t think I could have written about his death. I certainly wasn’t ready to write about Frank’s sickness as it was happening.

I delivered a very rough draft of the book to my editor about a month before Frank died. I knew it was rough. I knew it would need plenty of work. But I sensed that, after he died, I might not have been able to write at all for a while. And that was true. I shut down. I didn’t touch the manuscript for many months.

Since Frank died, I’ve written about his death twice, in the Manhattan column for the Times Magazine to which you refer, and in an article about widowhood for Marie Claire. These were short pieces, but the experience of writing them was hard, and sad. My mother also died during the time I was writing the book. I was pretty overwhelmed by loss for a period of almost three years. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to, or want to, write a book whose focus is on dying, death, loss, and grief. For now, I still can’t bring myself to read such books, either — as much as I admire Joan Didion and Meghan O’Rourke and other writers who’ve taken up that task.

SK: Finally: What service do you do — or try to do — in writing about drinking?

RS: I hope that by telling stories about drinking — and not just offering recipes or recommendations — I demonstrate that drinking shouldn’t be perceived as something empty of meaning and value, or as something that’s invariably just trouble. Drink can be trouble, there’s no doubt about that. But it also can be joy, and a host of other subtler pleasures. Context is all: if I think back on the most delicious martini I ever had, I don’t just think of the drink itself, which, although a lovely thing, seems sort of static and pretty and not so interesting. What makes it more interesting is recalling that I was in Belfast, that I had a great talk with the bartender, that I was in a setting far more formal than the bars I usually find myself in, which was disorienting, but I had such a good time, anyway. Every drink I write about comes with memories of people I’ve loved or, at least, whose company I’ve enjoyed, or strong emotions, or other associations that make it matter to me (and I hope, by extension, to readers — who will have associations of their own).

Those of us who love bar culture, and who are really in it, are sometimes pressured to explain or justify this affection. So I want to say that it’s about something richer than drink itself. It’s about community and comfort and friendship. This seems a bit of a stretch to describe as a “service,” but it is what I try to do.

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